Story: Cars and the motor industry

Page 7. Cars and society

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Since the 1950s New Zealand life has been increasingly influenced by the car, and suburban development and family life have been shaped by it. Planning for motorways began in the 1940s.

In the early 2000s, 80% of households had at least one car, and 25% had two or more. In 2006 there was one car for every 1.5 people in Auckland, and 17% of Auckland households had three cars or more. Most people were dependent on cars for travelling to work or school, socialising, shopping and holidays, among other things.

Country and town

In the early 1900s country areas had a higher ratio of cars to people, although horses were still a common form of transport. Cars opened new horizons to rural people – they could travel more frequently to larger towns for a better range of shops and entertainment. During the 1920s and 1930s, many smaller country towns went into decline and services closed.

People living in towns or cities that had trams or trains had less need of cars. Even so, there were several times more motorised vehicles than horse-drawn vehicles in Christchurch in 1922. By the 1950s rising car use was causing a decline in public transport, as tram systems were abandoned and bus passenger numbers fell.

Cars and the family

In the 1950s and 1960s new suburban developments were built with spacious new homes, each with its own driveway and garage. As these new suburbs were further from town centres, those who moved there relied on cars. Cars enabled families to do more things together outside the home, like going for picnics and camping in the country.

As long as a household had only one car, the man would almost always drive, and women and children were driven. From the 1960s, women and older children often acquired their own cars. As more women went to work outside the home and got driver’s licences, there was a demand for a second family car.

Parents became concerned about street safety, partly due to greater volumes of traffic. Younger children lost much of their earlier weekday independence as walkers and cyclists.

Young people and cars

By the 1990s many children, especially those at primary school, were driven to school. This resulted in traffic congestion around school gates at drop-off and pick-up times. Parents also drove children to sporting and recreational activities. Children grew up relying on cars. At the age of 15, young people could begin the process of getting their own driver’s licence, and their own car.

While cars reinforced family life, they also symbolised escape from it, as depicted in Kiwi road movies such as Runaway (1964) and Goodbye pork pie (1981). These appealed to a youthful audience’s disdain for authority. and used the journey to explore themes such as being at odds with society.

Home is a place controlled by parents, but a car can be a personal space suited to youthful self-definition – showing off, listening to music, smoking and sex. The behaviour of young people in cars has long been a source of concern to adults. In 1906 a young Christchurch man died after being thrown from a vehicle driven by a drunk youth. The ‘petrolheads’ and ‘hoons’ of the 1970s and the ‘boy racers’ of the 2000s in their modified high-powered Japanese saloons were more recent manifestations of a potent mix of alcohol, youth and cars.

How to cite this page:

Eric Pawson, 'Cars and the motor industry - Cars and society', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 June 2024)

Story by Eric Pawson, published 11 Mar 2010, updated 1 Dec 2014